Back in Class: Keya Paha County principal pulls double duty during math teacher search

Back in Class: Keya Paha County principal pulls double duty during math teacher search

By Tyler Dahlgren

The near and far search for a math teacher was starting to wear on the administrative team at Keya Paha County Schools.

They’d made all the calls and exhausted every option. There wasn’t a qualified candidate out there who wanted to come to the rolling Sandhills. At each dead end sat more frustration. Unfortunately, rural school districts are no strangers to this song and dance.

“I contacted multiple people I knew with math endorsements, some retired educators, too, but they didn’t want to come to rural America and teach,” said superintendent Jamie Isom. “You’re forced to try whatever you can think of to fill those positions.”

Finally, in mid-May, the district received an application from the Philippines. The administration met with the applicant over Zoom in June and an 8,000 mile journey for Keya Paha County’s new math teacher began.

Between paperwork and other logistics, an arrival date was initially unclear, as was a start date. With the first day of school fast approaching, Keya Paha County knew it was going to have to think outside of the box to fill the opening for the meantime. Their new teacher wouldn’t be arriving to the United States until a month after classes were set to start, and math subs rarely tend to stick for long stretches of time.

“People are terrified to teach math,” said principal Luke Wroblewski. “Substitutes will fill in for a day, but they don’t want to instruct math. There’s a real fear of teaching the math curriculum. A lot of people don’t have confidence in doing it.”

Wroblewski would know. The ninth-year principal is a former middle school math teacher, and, as most classroom teachers turned principals will attest, that itch never completely goes away.

“As administrators, we’re always teachers in our hearts,” said Isom. “After you’re out of the classroom for a while, I think there’s always a piece of you that wonders if you could still do it.”

After nearly a decade, Wroblewski decided he’d go ahead and find out. In small schools, everybody is used to wearing several hats. The teacher-turned-principal was adding one more to the rack.

Wroblewski returned to his roots.

“The option was to get a sub in there and they don’t learn anything, or I go in there and I instruct,” said Wroblewski. “So I jumped in and led the instruction for the benefit of the kids. That’s what everybody here is about, whether they’re administrators or educators. They just want to do what is best for the students.”

Isom wondered at first how Wroblewski would be able to cover both roles. At Keya Paha County, the math teacher is the math department. There’s one instructor for grades 7-12. Couple that with the countless duties of a K-12 principal and you have one tall task. 

Wroblewski soon proved up to the challenge.

“I don’t think every principal would take that on quite so willingly,” Isom said. “In the end, it came down to doing what needed to be done to give the students quality instruction, and they’re getting that with Mr. Wroblewski.”

For students, the idea the principal presiding over math class every day was daunting at first.

“We’re on our best behavior, because we know he’s the principal,” said 7th-grader Zayle Stephen, who has enjoyed seeing Wroblewski in a new light. “He makes class fun. I like his dad jokes.”

There wasn’t a whole lot of rust to knock off, Wroblewski said. Indeed, the dad jokes still landed like they used to. The curriculum never left him and students are still students, even if they know you possess the power to send them to, well, your office.

“Kids are kids,” Wroblewski said. “They’re still going to try to get away with what they can from time to time. But we have good kids. They have good hearts. I’m fortunate enough to have relationships with each of the students, regardless if I'm in the classroom or not. That’s the benefit of being in a small district.”

Some of Wroblewski’s students were surprised to see another side of their principal.

“I wondered why they didn’t just have a regular math teacher at first, but he’s smarter than I thought,” junior Beau Wiebelhaus said with a laugh.

The students acclimated quickly. There was no culture shock, Wroblewski said. His students knew his expectations from the hallways, and they carried over to the classroom. They haven’t skipped a beat.

“It was nice that he used to be a math teacher and that we weren’t getting random subs every day,” said 7th-grade student Zoey Snyder. “We’re all learning a lot.”

Though his days in front of the class are numbered, Wroblewski feels that the venture has been resoundingly beneficial. If the last 20 months have taught him anything, it’s the importance of flexibility.

“It was good for me as a principal to get back in the classroom,” he said. “You ask your teachers to implement a lot of different strategies, and this kind of forced me to get back in there and to realize that this is difficult. It helped us guide our professional development into the future and what we need to focus on.”

In her short time at Keya Paha County, Isom has found those teachers to be a devoted group, committed to their students and the community.

“This district’s really lucky to have the staff that’s here,” she continued. “They want to see the schools succeed and the students succeed because they realize how important that is to the community. It’s all intertwined.”

That rings true most everywhere, Isom said, but especially in a place like Springview and in a school like Keya Paha County.

“Everyone in the class is like family,” said Snyder.

After all, families are there for each other. No matter what. Even if it means jumping back to the head of the classroom, back where it where it all started.

Where the thrill of seeing a student earn an “A” is timeless.

“You want all students to succeed, and there is a pride in that,” Wroblewski said. “You hope that you’re one of the reasons, even if it’s in a small way, that they succeed.”